Andrew Young, an Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

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Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

So much has been written and documented about the Civil Rights Era that it is tempting to think that the entire story has been told. But such a conclusion would woefully underestimate the breadth and depth of the movement, and the almost stupefyingly complex negotiations that were necessary to obtain even the smallest increment in racial justice for black Americans. There is also the tendency to forget the resistance of the larger population, as distinguished from its extremists. And there is the mostly unknown story of the range of emotions on both sides of the racial divide which in so many instances would reduce bigots to stygian depths of savagery and debauchery, and bring tears of rage and frustration to the faces of good people, black and white, struggling at the end of their physical and emotional tethers to reach practicable and morally right compromises.

Fortunately, Andrew Young, former co-executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) and close aid of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from 1961 to Dr. King's death, has now published a comprehensive memoir of his life and the movement in An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, in which a great deal of important and unknown events are chronicled in full and satisfying detail.

Young begins with his birth in 1932 in New Orleans, to middle class Black parents (his father was a dentist and his mother a school teacher) and tells the story of his early Southern education, college at Howard University and the decision, against his father's wishes, to enter Hartford Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1955 at age 23. He accepted the call to preach in an impoverished community in Georgia, despite more attractive offers elsewhere because he had been raised on the Bible admonition, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required." This responsibility, he writes, was "an easy burden"!

In 1957 he met Dr. King, the hero of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, but was not overly impressed. They kept in touch and in 1961, when the civil rights movement burgeoned, he finally left his work with the National Council of Churches to join King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been formed in 1957 with King as president. Soon he found himself mediating disputes among the various strong personalities who so often disagreed with one another, and who created organizational problems because of their jockeying to be nearest to King.

The book gives a full account of all the civil rights battles, large and small, and is replete with accounts and anecdotes of the movement's inner and outer struggles. There were times, when driven by fatigue and despair, these men and women of good will came to blows. Young recounts the time, for example, when the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, incensed that an agreement had been reached in Birmingham without his full input, threatened to wreck the accord. Only a timely phone call from Robert Kennedy soothed Shuttlesworth's ego and "saved me from punching him out!" There were deeply moving moments also when, for example, on Easter Sunday, 1963, Birmingham police chief Bull Conner ordered his men to beat on protesters and none moved, causing one elderly Black lady stepping past the barricades to explain, "God Almighty done parted the Red Sea one mo' time."

There were moments of awe also, as when in 1964, after Dr. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, Paul Hallahan, knelt in front of Rev. King and asked for his blessing. …